Accessibility in the Digital Humanities

Accessibility is both a positive and a negative force when discussion the possibilities of the Internet age. At the dawn of the Internet, its possibilities, though they seemed endless, were difficult to grasp by those who could have benefitted most. Unintended consequences due to a lack of foresight into the potential of the Internet’s capabilities are seen in nearly every industry. In fact, it is probably most evident in journalism, where newspapers originally made their content free to all users, then hid it behind paywalls, found that these actions had plenty of consequences for print, as well as for born-digital news sources that benefitted from their open access. This is a problem in the humanities and in libraries as a whole, especially regarding open access under copyright, as discussed in the article on Google Books.

In our first week of readings, Cohen and Rosenzweig view this newfound accessibility on the Internet as an advantage for historians because of the ability to reach a wide audience, as well as the fact that this has “zero marginal cost.” “The Internet allows historians to speak to vastly more people in widely dispersed places without really spending more money—an extraordinary development.” They also discuss inaccessibility and the problems that stem from the digital divide in computer ownership, specifically in a global context as well as the problems of monopoly. These arguments tie in directly to our readings this week.

The article on Google Books discusses the desire for open access as being an Enlightenment principle, one that our country was founded on. He places the responsibility of this open access on libraries that missed their chance in the early days of the Internet to make more content available to their users. Google picked up this mantle in 2004 by launching Google Books and facing down copyright lawsuits made by authors and publishers alike. Therefore, Google has the advantage in having control of all digitized copies of books that are put on the web. The author voiced his concerns about payment. Would we see what happened in print journalism or with scholarly journals and libraries happen with Google Books? Would the payments become so steep that libraries would be forced to dedicate large portions of their already-stretched-thin budgets to give their users open access?

Accessibility is also touched upon in The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing. The author here believes that historians need to rethink the nature of historical writing, by de-emphasizing the narrative, and giving greater access to their data-based methodology. He sees this as a way to break down interdisciplinary walls as well as walls between the researcher and their audience. By changing the format of historical writing to allow for these “twentieth century footnotes,” we would see a greater understanding not only in our field, but also in others, of how to use newly available data to become more accessible. Not only would their work become more “user-friendly” but it would also encourage more historians to think outside of the more linear and traditional ways of using data in historical work.

The issue of accessibility is not going to disappear overnight. In fact, on Monday articles, such as this one from Forbes, appeared about the continuing legal battle over Google Books and its right to digitally share books with all users. By making more content available and their methodology more transparent, historians and all those practicing in the digital world can find ways around the unintended consequences of an open Internet.

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